Given his "sensitive" Oscar acceptance speech and recent portrayal of a Holocaust victim, Adrien Brody may not be anyone's idea of a bad boy, but the aura's really all about self-confidence, and as Jack, the main character in Peter Sehr's new film, Brody exudes it. He may instantly earn the hatred of film fans nationwide by being shown early on in a theater putting his feet up on the seats in front of him (attention all moviegoers: when you do this, the slightest shift in the position of your appendages shakes the whole row, so quit it!) and talking on his cell phone, but there's something about him that keeps us watching. And it ain't the cigarette lighter that plays Mozart every time he flips it open.
Jack's a con artist who uses tip-offs from a concierge (August Diehl) at one of the finer hotels in town to gain inside knowledge on wealthy foreign visitors. Jack and his partner Charlie (Jon Seda, giving off the vibe of a less-annoying John Leguizamo) send actresses posing as hookers to seduce the naïve guests, then bust in dressed as cops, threaten arrests and generally walk out with healthy amounts of hush bribes. It's a game that gets progressively more dangerous, as Detective Fox (Pam Grier) is on their case, as the world's most conspicuous "undercover" cop -- dressing as if for a garden party with the Queen of England and affecting a semi-British accent doesn't seem like the best plan for going incognito, but who are we to question?
While at his favorite movie theater, Jack encounters Claire (Charlotte Ayanna), a smart and feisty college student who has the nerve to spurn his advances. Always up for a challenge, Jack pursues her anyway. Bored of her white-bread boyfriend, Claire eventually opts to hang with the bad boy, to whom she repeatedly shows her perfectly round breasts. That'd be enough to hold my attention, and it does, but Jack seems to get bored after the first go-round, even sending Charlie on dates with Claire in his place ("Maybe she'll even fuck you," he says nonchalantly).
Claire, like so many before her, truly believes that she will be Jack's salvation, the one person who can break through that rough exterior and get to his sensitive side. That side exists -- Jack rents out a storage space in which he can don a bathrobe and compose his Great American Novel -- but bad boys just don't turn good overnight.
Speaking of overnight -- some dramatic plot points seem to occur in such a duration -- or do they? The biggest flaw in Love the Hard Way is its total inability to coherently convey the passage of time. What appears to be the day after Jack and Claire's first night of intimacy turns out to be two weeks later. Immediately after Claire has asked to work the cons with Jack and has been turned down, we see her working with him. What? When did Jack change his mind? When the film's epilogue is introduced by a title reading "two years later," it makes you wish a similar device had been used throughout the film. It may be that the temporal dislocation is simply a clash in cultural sensibilities, as it can be commonplace in foreign films to depict the flow of time differently -- while Love the Hard Way may look American, it's directed by a German and adapted from a Chinese novel entitled Yi Ban Shi Huo Yan, Yi Ban Shi Hai Shui. Or it may just be that editor Christian Nauheimer isn't very good.
Whatever the case, this movie will not be attaining a second Oscar for Brody. He's a compelling presence for someone who looks like he popped out of a Zippy the Pinhead comic strip, and Ayanna's odd eyes and tendency to shed shirts at the drop of a proverbial hat will doubtless get her noticed. Yet as fun to watch as the lead twosome may be, they need a coherent and compelling story to back them up, and they aren't given much of one.